Oh Columbus Day, Columbus Day, why do you exist?

October 7, 2010

When I first saw Columbus Day on the Registrar’s calendar as a freshman last year, I was amused to find that we had the day off. For many students in this country, Columbus Day is just a novelty, and many states and school districts have never used it as an excuse to cancel school. Students, however, really shouldn’t just dismiss Columbus Day out of hand. Instead, they should think seriously about what this holiday really commemorates.
Centennial celebrations of Christopher Columbus’s landing took place in the United States in 1792 and 1892, before it became popular to celebrate Columbus Day annually. Colorado made it a holiday by law in 1907, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt recognized it in 1934, although Columbus Day didn’t actually become a federal holiday until 1971. Americans commemorate Columbus Day in many places across the country, sometime as a celebration of Italian-American heritage.
Italian-Americans have every right to celebrate their heritage, even though it seems a little strange to celebrate Italian heritage and immigration to America on a day that remembers a Renaissance-era Genovese who never came to this country at all. More often, though, it’s a nod to the man whose actions would eventually lead to the founding of our nation. For that reason, it is necessary to look at what Columbus symbolizes in our history.
Ernest Renan, a 19th-century writer, once wrote, “To forget and, I will venture to say, to get one’s history wrong are essential factors in the making of a nation.” For most young students, Columbus is where the American mythology begins. Every American child is bound to hear that Columbus discovered America. This is true, under a limited definition of “discover,” but for most children the statement is never qualified.
Some students might hear that Norsemen settled in North America—something Columbus never did—or even that the Americas were first truly discovered and populated by people who came here tens of thousands of years before. But unfortunately, nothing is as romantic as the tales of the Italian accidentally finding a continent while serving the king and queen of Spain.
In 1967, the late Representative Peter W. Rodino, Jr. (D-N.J.), provided some clues as to why this is when he spoke before Congress about the possibility of renaming the holiday “Discoverers Day.”
“Our textbooks and our history have been written around Christopher Columbus, and there are a great many scholars who adhere to the proposition that it was Christopher Columbus who initially made the discovery of the New World and opened it up to civilization and colonization,” he said.
Rodino’s testimony is proof that it is America’s historical narrative that gives Columbus his importance. This narrative emphasizes exploration, expansion and settlement, values every American child associates with his or her country’s history. The narrative implicitly, and at times explicitly, lauds European and European-American conquest.
But what is most important is what the narrative omits: the history of our continent’s original inhabitants. It forgets that in addition to opening America to “civilization and colonization,” Columbus also opened it to widespread slavery, cultural extermination, and the destruction of millions of lives. And it conveniently leaves out the fact that we are not just Kennedy’s “nation of immigrants”—our nation includes Native Americans, too.
Something else Rondino said struck me as interesting. He told his fellow House members that “the observance of Columbus Day as a national holiday will, I am certain, prove to be effective in blotting out the vestiges of discrimination, prejudice, and bigotry—and for this reason alone I would urge favorable action on the pending bill.”
Yes, discrimination against Italians and other immigrant groups absolutely mar our nation’s history. But given the Civil Rights Movement that was ongoing when he said this, and Columbus’ role in the eventual shipment of African slaves to the Americas, Rondino’s statement is deeply ironic. And while it is unfortunate for a group to be discriminated against, it is something else entirely for one to be forgotten.
Only three people are honored with federal holidays in the United States: George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., and Christopher Columbus. Two of these men are fundamental figures in American history and embody our nation’s ideals. But Columbus’s connection to our country is tenuous at best, even though our national myth makes it seem otherwise.
Columbus Day doesn’t need to be reconsidered because of how history judges the results of his “discovery,” nor because government holidays need to be politically correct. We should reconsider about Columbus Day because American children deserve to learn history as it happened. They deserve a nation that might, someday, get the narrative right.


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Yes, there were Native Americans in the Western Hemisphere long before Columbus. Yes, the Vikings settled in Newfoundland back in the early/high Middle Ages. But it was Columbus’s voyage that led to the first permanent European settlements in the Americas. Was North America here before the English? Um, duh. But would the United States of America be the country that it is without the legacy of the English? No fucking way. Would the English have gotten to North America if the Spanish hadn’t had such success in South and Central America? Maybe, maybe not. Probably not in the same way, though. Christopher Columbus reached the West Indies at a time when Western Europe was ready to expand and to leave its mark on the world. Our system of government is Western European; our system of law a mix of Roman and English law; our most common languages are Western European languages. We can debate forever the morality of the European explorers and settlers, but we cannot deny that the structures of the United States are a Western European inheritance.


Are you kidding me? Columbus didn’t just “open” the continent cultural extermination. The man himself was a psychotic murderer. He certainly didn’t “civilize” the Americas in any way.

that chick from new york, where columbus day is bonafide

It’s not that Columbus’s stature in our history is any less great, it’s that you’re looking at it from a retroactive lens rather than how it was viewed at the time – things may have happened in some remote location, but modes of communication were limited. Columbus did something great for a white, colonialist Europe. That doesn’t diminish what he did; his ideals were within proportion to the society he was a part of – to single Columbus out for something that was unfortunately common among colonizers is a little ridiculous. How much time in school did you spend learning about Vasco da Gamma?


Maybe I’m lost… what did he do that was so great? He was an avaricious murderer who was arrested for his cruelty and sent back to Spain. That means Europeans (those from the society he was a part of) realized how barbaric he was. The only thing I can credit him with is opening up a continent to exploitation, slavery, disease and genocide. Only centuries later did this come under the pretense of “progress.” It’s not at all ridiculous to call him out on this.

Either way, even IF he were good for a colonialist Europe, why the fuck should we celebrate what he did today? Don’t defend a backwards tradition because it’s a tradition.